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The Price is Right

Is $60 or more too much for games that cost dramatically less than blockbuster movies like Avatar to make? According to a senior EA producer Jason DeLong, the answer sounds like "probably." And maybe, just maybe, we're about to see the retail cost pendulum swing the other way for a change.

"I think that we're going to start to see--maybe not in the next year, but in the near future--games go down the route of smaller up-front experiences and lower prices at the beginning," DeLong told Game Informer, "and then the ability to extend the game through episodic material or future feature material. I think that’s a direction we're probably heading in."

Ah, the double-edged sword. The price per byte of gaming may in fact remain the same (or, who knows, even rise) in other words, but the cost of admission should shrink. You know, for the first couple hours of gameplay, anyway.

The better to lure us in?

Episodic--or should we call it "modular"?--content seems to work well enough. Telltale Games' episode-based Sam & Max series costs $9 per installment purchased through Steam. The first season was composed of six episodes, each one offering two hours of comedy-driven point-and-click style sleuthing. That's $54 total for about a dozen hours of gameplay. Subsequent bundle deals dropped the price to just $5 per episode.

That's almost like paying $9 for the first half-hour of a six-hour $54 opera, with the option to stay (and pay) or leave. Make that an option you can exercise repeatedly, at semi-complete intervals, on the road toward owning and completing the whole thing.

Sounds promising, right? Studios could offer more content for less upfront cash and spread the risk across broader investment periods. Gamers could take or leave installments (or add-ons, or modular expansions) and possibly even influence a game's direction by interacting constructively with the design team. Developers would be incentivized to make each game extension uniquely spectacular, and to rely less on derivative filler to advance between a game's better bits (airboat sequence in Half-Life 2, I'm looking at you). Publisher revenue would hypothetically be less fiscally tumultuous--having dozens of small irons in the fire sounds less risky than just two or three nukes. And gamers like me, who prefer to watch shows like Mad Men and Breaking Bad and Arrested Development all at once instead of in installments could simply wait for the bundle version.

But what about the downsides? Plenty of those, too. Games would have to be fairly linear to support the "add-in" approach, for starters. Imagine Madden with only half the teams, stadiums, and playbook strategies, or THQ's Dawn of War continuous-time strategy series missing unit types, tactical maneuvers, and multiplayer modes. Publishers could foist half-cooked games on players, then dangle notably superior downloadable content to force us to "eat" the second-rate entry-level stuff. Game prices could also end up being more expensive, in the long run, if publishers use innate fragmentation to "hide" the aggregate cost. And don't forget the vocal segment of gamers who never, ever want to see franchises like Halo or Killzone or Gears of War turned into episodic experiences, or shipped without oodles of online maps and play modes. They want experiences that last dozens of hours a go, out of the box, and they won't wait for it, months on end.

Back to the underlying "$60 question": Is that too much for games these days? I thought so back in 2005, but who didn't? Fact is, none of us have any idea without looking at EA's or Activision's or Ubisoft's books.

Since that'll never happen, we're left with the old supply and demand adage: They're worth whatever we're willing to pay for them.

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